It’s a strange thing to read about the fall of ancient civilizations while one’s own teeters on the brink. At several points while reading Annalee Newitz’s Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, I made notes in the margins about how the mistakes of one society or another appeared to predict those of the contemporary United States, whose great democratic experiment has recently undergone some strain.
This isn’t just because of the past four years of grift and corruption, which culminated in a deadly riot targeting the United States’ most sacred democratic institutions; such moments are mere blips on the long ribbon of archaeological time. It’s also because, as Newitz shows, civilizations throughout human history have tended to rise and fall for many of the same reasons. Much as water-infrastructure inadequacies perennially threaten California, hydraulic-engineering decisions made to glorify a king rather than to store water safely left 14th-century Angkor, Cambodia unable to cope with a changing climate. Similarly, like the many New Orleans residents unable to flee their low-lying homes as Hurricane Katrina approached in 2005, slaves were forced to remain in Pompeii as Mount Vesuvius heaved its smoky warnings two millennia before.
Çatalhöyük, the settlement in what is now central Turkey, disintegrated over time. The scenario is not unlike what befell 21st-century Syria, where unprecedented drought helped to provoke a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.
Four Lost Cities is a fascinating book, written in a conversational tone, as though Newitz were leading readers on a series of interpretive tours. The author gives a sense, in their account of a visit to Cahokia, a Mississippi River town that thrived from the 11th to the 14th century, of the brutal, exacting work of archaeology, but also the joy of it: “I couldn’t stop thinking,” they write, “about how I licked the bones of a deer that had been cooked for a feast in Cahokia 900 years ago.” (A “lick check” is an easy way to distinguish bone from other hard materials.)
Newitz describes vividly how lidar, a technology that bounces laser light off surfaces to map ground covered in forests, revealed the true contours of the city of Angkor to modern archaeologists. Earlier archaeologists, the author observes, “conditioned to look for Western modes of urban development,” had completely missed the sprawling farms and villages that predated the great stone edifices of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, mistaking those structures for self-contained walled cities. It would be like stumbling upon the ruins of Disneyland in 1,000 years and assuming that all of Orange County had lived within its boundaries.
If recognizing our own societies in those of the ancient world can be unsettling, it is also comforting: recognizing that humans have always bickered, chafed against inequality, and hoarded mementos—Marie Kondo be damned—reassures us that some aspects of humanity are hardwired, and we can relax a little knowing that even while civilizations dissolved, the species persisted. On the other hand, it’s best not to be too confident of our commonalities. Many a researcher has been led astray trying to force archaeological finds into a contemporary mindset.
Among the more dramatic of these misdirects was one instigated by British archaeologist James Mellaart, who, after excavating Çatalhöyük in the 1960s—the first European to do so—asserted that the female figurines he’d unearthed indicated a culture by, for, and about women, ruled by matriarchs and in service to a goddess. Later researchers, most notably Stanford University’s Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell, dug deeper and found many more animals than human females in Çatalhöyük’s figurine collection. “If any type of symbol held sway over this community, it was more likely to be a leopard,” Newitz writes.
Meskell also noted that these little female figures had been treated carelessly, handled and discarded in the local midden like overused toys. That Mellaart didn’t question his conclusions may have been because he was living in a time when goddesses were all the rage. Robert Graves’s The White Goddess had “electrified anthropologists and the general public,” Newitz tells us. Even “celebrated urban historians Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs” got on board.
Four Lost Cities is shot through with other instances of Western thinkers imposing modern values on their presumptive discoveries, among them the notion that societies “collapse,” a theory explored by Jared Diamond in his influential (but misleading, says Newitz) book of the same name. The four cities Newitz chronicles neither collapsed nor disappeared nor were ever really lost. Rather, they dispersed as their populations gradually (or all of a sudden in the case of Pompeii) moved away.
Angkor continued long after its royalty left. Cahokian treasures have been uncovered up and down the Mississippi River, suggesting that some people visited for festivals (“Cahokia was also a city that loved to party,” Newitz writes) and others left with traded valuables. The people of Çatalhöyük, meanwhile, “burst apart…like a dandelion,” the data shows, “the seeds of its culture finding purchase in small villages and other great settlements that left the earth transformed, threaded with bone.”
There was no one cause, no single event, that triggered their dispersal. Maybe, Newitz suggests, the formerly nomadic urbanites just got tired of living with other people.
Even Pompeii lived on, in its way, supported by a Roman government that dedicated enormous resources to resettling refugees from the lava-crushed city. Such a response, Newitz writes, was similar to “what we hope for in Western democracies of the early 21st century.” With his brother, Domitian, who would succeed him, Emperor Titus “funded the construction of entire new neighborhoods at Cumae to house refugees, complete with baths, an amphitheater, and temples dedicated to Pompeii’s patron gods Venus and Vulcan.” He also had a road built “linking the city to the Roman road network,” employing the local workforce. This recalls the FEMA of the 1990s, after an earthquake devastated Los Angeles, not the “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” version that faltered when Katrina struck.
As our world faces the test of an unstable climate, we would do well to heed what Four Lost Cities offers as a cautionary tale: Prepare for the inevitable floods and wildfires, and do whatever’s necessary to shore up our defenses in advance. “The combination of climate change and political instability we face in many modern cities suggests that we’re heading for a period of global urban abandonment,” Newitz concludes. The “slow apocalypse” of Angkor could represent our future. We need to think carefully and invest wisely to protect our cities from the ravages of a hotter planet.
Archaeology, Newitz suggests, might show us how.